Message from the Editor
If 2020 has anything positive to teach us it is that the status quo has run its course. Between the disruptions of a virus, the horrific disregard of human life that sparked Canada’s largest mass-killing last spring, and the seemingly endless litany of killings and abuse by figures of authority that have exposed the abnormal roots of so-called norms, this year just seems to keep getting worse. But there is a crack in everything, right? That’s how the light gets in. That is light isn’t it—at the end of this endless tunnel?
It feels like the worst thing we, as a society, could do (once we can do things again), is to just go back to the way things were. But if not that, what? And who gets to decide that “what”?
Over the next few months Billie will be featuring some modest proposals for what the arts community in Atlantic Canada could become. The question these writers are responding to is simple: what do you want the new normal to be? Based on what we’ve got, it’s long past time for some new ideas, isn’t it?
Ray Cronin, Editor-in-Chief
“Visual Culture Atlantic”
. . . but make it safe and inclusive
By Emma Hassenchal-Perley
Like many other arts professionals, my life has been impacted socially, professionally, and creatively by the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Before COVID-19, I was aware that I had become burnt out, and, at the time, I did not know how to exist outside of this realm of burnout. At that time—a year ago—I was balancing the roles of being an instructor, a curatorial intern, and an artist all at the same time. I took on every new job and new task that came along, and I felt like I always had to be working with one foot in the institution and the other foot in my community. Sometimes I still think this way, and I realize how unhealthy my balance of work has become. I did not prioritize rest, and when I do rest, I feel guilty about it. I am currently working as a full-time visual artist and freelance curator for the foreseeable future. I acknowledge that while it has been an uncertain and perhaps unsteady career choice, I am fortunate because I still have work. I have found contracts, and have worked on personal projects to occupy myself despite gallery cancellations and closures. Many full-time artists depend on gig-culture—bookings, events, and commissions—and it has been challenging to work in this economy with so many closures of art and culture institutions. Some artists have lost hundreds to thousands of dollars from their regular income. Now we are seeing more digital programming, but working online is not always an easy, accessible, or desired move for some. In general, being online might not be for everyone, especially when digitally is how we are accustomed to ingesting the tragedies that occur day in and day out.
So, I guess to recapitulate the past 6 months, art institutions in New Brunswick began closing their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. Since then, we have been—and continue to be—witness to important demonstrations coming out of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement (an international call to address systemic racism and demand justice for the murdering of Black people in the United States and Canada). Indigenous Peoples stand in solidarity with our relatives for BLM and the fight for justice and equality. In June, we felt the weight of colonial violence heighten in New Brunswick with the killing of two Indigenous people in ten days by RCMP officers. These events have been a daunting reminder that BIPOC—especially those visibly darker in skin tone—are never truly safe, neither at home nor at work. To assume that social injustices will have no effect on the Atlantic Canadian art scene would be irresponsible and naïve. The climate of the socio-political structures we live in will continue to impact our work, in any discipline, but especially for BIPOC arts professionals and those working within colonial industries like galleries and museums.
Luckily, the virus has been contained in low numbers here in New Brunswick and the rest of Atlantic Canada compared to anywhere else. Slowly, art institutions are beginning to re-open in the province, and arts professionals are returning to work while adhering to safety guidelines—except the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, which cannot open safely due to renovations on the gallery front.
In preparation for this response, I read Lindsay Nixon’s report titled A CULTURE OF EXPLOITATION: “Reconciliation” and the Institutions of Canadian Art. It outlines the contentious relationship between Indigenous cultural workers and the art institutions that harbor Indigenous art and objects. Nixon’s report critiques the efforts put forth by Canada 150, is what is deemed the “Reconciliation Year.” While many progressive things happened during the centennial celebrations in support of Indigenous arts, there are still significant changes that need to be made within institutions. Such modifications should also occur despite COVID-19 art-world closures. Nixon’s report states that COVID-19 has highlighted institution financial priorities, i.e., just what and who they are willing to protect. Page fifteen of Nixon’s report includes a point on Post-Pandemic Prospects, where they state, “When I asked the interviewees who they thought would survive this period of austerity measures in Canada’s arts and culture sectors, they were clear that they perceived high-level administration and management within Canada’s cultural institutions would be able to maintain a secure footing in the industry, and that large and small organizations are being affected differently by COVID-19 austerity measures in art (Nixon)”.
Nixon’s report calls on institutions to keep up the pace following the centennial celebrations and despite COVID-19 closures. In my attempt to echo Nixon’s report recommendations, during the Atlantic Canadian art world re-opening, I hope to see art institutions responding and committing themselves the 94 Calls to Action from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). I hope to see these calls introduced throughout museum and gallery policies to make structural, institutional changes. I would like to see institutions consult carefully and respectfully with Indigenous Peoples on matters concerning their institution’s inclusiveness, and then use these consultations to implement policies that abide by the recommendations given from Indigenous communities. I want accountability and transparency from these institutions to protect and honor BIPOC art, artists, and employees.
I would certainly like to see more Black and Indigenous Peoples being employed through the institutions, not only in the form of contracts and outsourced diversity funding, but hired for permanent positions. I would like to see the implementation of safety and support structures in institutions for Indigenous and BIPOC cultural workers to tackle cultural and emotional exploitation and tokenism. Black and Indigenous cultural workers often have extraordinarily little power in their jobs, and they are often the only BIPOC working within their institutions. Ideally, more salaried positions for Indigenous and BIPOC peoples will be introduced and, in more agreement with Nixon’s report, transitioning succession programs for senior positions. Black and Indigenous peoples deserve to thrive in any areas of institutions they choose to work for.
One of the top priorities might be cultural sovereignty—”Indigenous peoples should have cultural sovereignty over the management of their arts and cultures in Canada” (Nixon)—especially when it comes to the preservation and proper exhibition of Indigenous art and other cultural objects. One day, I dream that we regain complete control over our own art and cultural objects and exhibit them inside our own institutions/museums in our territories. I use the term institution loosely because I imagine that it would differ from Western institutions, where no one touches the objects or uses them in ceremony and teaching circles. While cultural objects rest in Western institutions, we should continue to have a respectful partnership and sovereignty over our possessions. Ultimately, Indigenous Peoples have the freedom of thinking about and exercising the purpose of our art and objects—do we treat them as they are dead, encased, and under glass, or in a sense, do we bring them back to life?
I want to stress how much I believe in Nixon’s report suggestions. They are great jumping-off points for institutions to ensure more space for inclusivity and empowerment of BIPOC. Nixon’s recommendations also unlock opportunities for Black and Indigenous peoples to feel respected and safe while working with, or within, art museums and galleries beyond COVID-19 and the Reconciliation year. Reconciliation, a well-debated topic and to some, only a buzzword, is not often a motivating factor for Black and Indigenous arts and culture workers.
Lastly, I want to see an increase in funding supports for Indigenous arts across Provincial and National granting bodies to see more Indigenous and BIPOC art collected in museums, schools, airports, hotels, and city centers. I want to see local Indigenous art become an explicit visual marker of these territories The knowledge embedded in these lands should be reflected in the things we see every day.